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Fla. city kicks off new search-and-rescue program for missing people

A new step-by-step search procedure is getting police and firefighter boots on the ground faster as well as drones, helicopters and fire engines

missing persons search jacksonville

Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office police and Fish and Wildlife officers search for missing siblings Braxton and Bri’ya Williams along U.S. 90 after they went missing on Dec. 17, 2019.

Will Dickey/Florida Times-Union

By Dan Scanlan
The Florida Times-Union

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A new step-by-step search procedure for missing people is getting police and firefighter boots on the ground faster as well as drones, helicopters and fire engines on and above the streets in Jacksonville.

Using the Missing Endangered Person Search and Rescue program has already helped find 13 of the 15 most recent missing adult and children cases, according to city officials.

Sheriff Mike Williams, Fire Chief Keith Powers and Mayor Lenny Curry announced the program Wednesday at City Hall. They say the techniques are now part of a new systematic process that rapidly deploys personnel and equipment from both departments to search for missing people. And for now, it is unique to Jacksonville.

“When you have an endangered or missing person or small child, it is time sensitive,” Williams said. “The quicker you can get people on the ground, searching in those wood lines and trying to cover those lakes is incredibly important.”

When the program is activated for a missing or endangered person, the fire department’s dispatchers send alerts to all firefighter emails as well as computer terminals in fire engines to “get out there early and get on the streets,” Powers said.

“They know what they are looking for, and they know the description of the missing person,” the chief said. “We dispatch to the companies surrounding the last known area of where the missing person was. We flood that area with apparatus riding up and down the streets. The two last two that were successful, that’s how they were found.”

Officers and firefighters have been called in numerous times in recent months to search for missing adults and children, some of them with physical or cognitive issues, and sometimes those cases involve lots of people.

Upward of 150 police and firefighters from across the region were involved in a high-profile 2019 search for siblings Braxton and Bri’ya Williams, found safe on Dec. 17, 2019 in swampy woods. Searchers checked 430 homes, plus woods and 20 bodies of water over about 130 acres until the children were found, the Sheriff’s Office said.

The Missing Endangered Person Search and Rescue program was used in the most recent case Sunday when the Sheriff’s Office found a missing 14-year-old boy with autism last seen that morning on Emuness Road.

The policy also was used in the April 25 search for 5-year-old Mohamad Waleen Mohamad Nour, who also had autism. That search ended tragically when he was found dead in a pond near Wolf Creek Townhomes, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Thirty-two officers and 48 Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department personnel joined in the two-hour search, going door-to-door and using boats, a drone, K-9s and a helicopter before the boy was found in the pond near his neighborhood.

Williams said the new procedure means using Jacksonville’s “ton of resources” faster to get a search going and not reaching out to adjoining county law enforcement or state agencies as much. When a search is needed for a missing person, their teams will use the new policy to determine quickly what resources are needed.

“Diminished mental capacity, that’s going to push the button and JFRD will show up with lots of people,” Williams said. “We will bring in extra technology like FLIR [forward-looking infrared] and all of that.”

He said he and Powers have been working on the final plan for a while and have used its techniques before the new policy was recently locked in.

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The procedure also uses information from the missing person’s family about his or her behavior as well as data from similar cases across the country, Powers said.

“It basically tells us where to start looking for missing people, depending whether it is a child or challenged adult,” he said. “The last few that we had, the circle that it draws and says here’s where to go is right where that person has been found.”

Williams said other agencies also are showing interest.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Jacksonville kicks off new search-and-rescue program for missing people

(c)2021 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)